100 Greatest Women, #5: Tammy Wynette

100 Greatest Women

#5

Tammy Wynette

The First Lady of Country Music, and the Heroine of Heartbreak. Tammy Wynette sang with a tear in her voice, a classic country wail that perfectly complemented the desperate emotional dramas she sang. But underneath the layers of pain, there was always a strong undercurrent of resilience, and some of the best songs she ever sang and wrote had as much hope for tomorrow as they had sorrow for today.

Wynette was born the only child of a farmer musician and his wife. When she was only nine months old, her father died, and her mother was forced to work wherever she could, leaving her in the care of her grandparents, who had a cotton farm in Mississippi. As a child, she picked cotton alongside the workers in the field, but she dreamed of country stardom. Her escape from the drudgery of her daily life were the musical instruments her father had left behind, which she taught herself to play, and a children’s record player, on which she spun the discs of Skeeter Davis, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

She married her first husband right before high school graduation, and she did several different jobs before enrolling in beautician school in 1963. She would renew her license every year, long after she was a major star, so she always had something to fall back on. But she was still pursuing her dream to sing, and when her husband didn’t support her dream, she left him, three daughters in tow, determined to make it big.

She started singing in Alabama nightclubs, and caught a break with a performance on the the Birmingham television program The Country Boy Eddie Show in 1965. This led to some gigs with Porter Wagoner, which gave her the nerve she needed to move to Nashville and pursue a recording contract. She auditioned for famed producer Billy Sherrill, who needed a singer for a song he’d been given called “Apartment #9.” Wynette blew him away, and he signed her to Epic Records.

Wynette’s first single release was “Apartment #9,” and it peaked at #44, though its inclusion in her top-selling greatest hits album a few years later would make it one of her most beloved hits. The next single provided her initial breakthrough, the up-tempo romp “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” which featured a sly lyrical reference to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life.” It established Wynette on the radio, peaking at #3, a good start for a female country singer. But over the next few years, Wynette would demolish all expectations held of female artists, dominating the charts with a string of #1 hits unseen before by any woman in country music history.

Beginning in 1967, with her chart-topping duet with David Houston, “My Elusive Dreams,” Wynette released a string of classic hit singles that captured the domestic experience in gritty detail. The heartbreaking “I Don’t Wanna Play House” won her a Grammy, and she followed it with another #1 single, “Take Me To Your World.” Then, in 1968, she released two consecutive singles that would be the defining records of her career.

The first was co-written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, a ballad from the perspective of a guilt-ridden mother of a young boy who doesn’t know his parents are breaking up. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” helped make her a major star, and she returned to the same theme with later hits like “Bedtime Story” and “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”

Needing a follow-up to that hit, Wynette and Sherrill quickly wrote a song in the fifteen minutes before a scheduled recording session. It ended up Wynette’s first single as a writer, and she would later say that she spent fifteen minutes writing it and the rest of her life defending it. “Stand By Your Man” became her signature song, winning her a second Grammy and crossing over to the pop chart. But it was also blasted by members of the burgeoning feminist movement, who saw it as something of a doormat song, even though the lyric doesn’t support that characterization. To be fair, her next single, “Singing My Song”, could have given them a lot more material to work with, but that was such an obvious attempt to recreate the success of “Stand By Your Man” that Wynette deserves a free pass on that one.

The one-two punch of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand By Your Man” led to Wynette dominating at the CMA Awards, winning three consecutive Female Vocalist trophies beginning in 1968. Over the next few years, she would rack up an impressive run of hits, including 21 #1 singles over a ten-year period, a record that would not be matched until Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire many years later.

Many of her hits were from her own pen, including some of her very best, particularly the 1976 classic “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own,” which was later a hit again by Kenny Rogers & Dottie West. She also penned the nakedly confessional “Another Lonely Song,” which found her talking herself out of an affair while talking to God. She also co-wrote the last big hit she had with George Jones, “Two Story House,” which nearly topped the charts in 1980.

It was just one of the many hits that they had together, some during the course of their six year marriage and some afterwards. While the duets of Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn were more popular at the time, Jones & Wynette made records that were far more interesting and often tumultuous. Many of them, like “Golden Ring”, “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Take Me,” rank with the very best of each artist’s solo work, which is no small feat in itself.

Wynette’s personal life was always a source of fascination to the tabloid media, and she documented quite a bit of it in her autobiography Stand By Your Man, which became a television movie in 1981. But her music remained equally compelling, even as the radio hits inevitably dried up. She recorded some of her most challenging material in the late seventies and eighties, with her take on John Prine’s “Unwed Fathers,” her cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Crying in the Rain,” and the power ballad “Talkin’ to Myself Again” worthy of the attention showered on her earlier hits.

As she entered the nineties, her status as a country music icon secured long ago, she surfaced in a surprising place. International house music stars The KLF invited her to sing on a remix of their dance track “Justified and Ancient,” and she agreed, singing trippy lines like “They called me up in Tennessee, they said Tammy, stand by the jam.” She appeared in the music video wearing a crown and leading a parade of dancers in native costumes. Amazingly, the song was a smash, topping the charts in eighteen countries and becoming her biggest hit on the pop charts in America.

Wynette followed the crossover success by collaborating with her contemporaries Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn on the 1993 album Honky Tonk Angels, which became the first gold-selling studio album of her career. Wynette sang lead on the set’s single, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” and wrote and sang one of its high-water marks, “That’s the Way it Should Have Been.” She also released a duet album called Without Walls, where she sang with everyone from Elton John to Sting. In 1995, she reunited with George Jones on the duet album One.

In 1998, Tammy Wynette died in her sleep, and her passing was widely mourned across the country, with CNN broadcasting live from the memorial service. Later that year, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A tribute album followed, Tammy Wynette…Remembered, which featured country stars like Martina McBride and Rosanne Cash alongside pop stars Melissa Etheridge and Elton John, who sang her signature “Stand By Your Man.” That song has also been recorded over the years by Lyle Lovett, David Allan Coe and the Dixie Chicks.

In 2000, the ACM honored Tammy Wynette with the Pioneer Award, and her catalog continues to sell strongly. Wynette’s legacy as both a singer and a writer is immeasurable, and she remains as celebrated today as she was in her heyday, one of the few women who blazed such a trail that the impact has been felt by every one who’s come along after her.

Tammy Wynette

Essential Singles

  • “Apartment #9,” 1966
  • “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” 1967
  • “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” 1967
  • “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” 1968
  • “Stand By Your Man,” 1968
  • “‘Til I Get it Right,” 1972
  • “Another Lonely Song,” 1973
  • “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own,” 1976
  • “Golden Ring” (with George Jones), 1976
  • “Justified and Ancient” (with The KLF), 1991

Essential Albums

  • Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad, 1967
  • D-I-V-O-R-C-E, 1968
  • Stand By Your Man, 1969
  • The Ways to Love a Man, 1969
  • Tammy’s Touch, 1970
  • ‘Til I Can Make it On My Own, 1976
  • Honky Tonk Angels, 1993

Industry Awards

  • ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1970
  • ACM Pioneer Award, 2000
  • CMA Female Vocalist, 1968, 1969 & 1970
  • Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“I Don’t Wanna Play House”), 1968
  • Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Stand By Your Man”), 1970
  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 1998

==> #4. Emmylou Harris

<== #6. Reba McEntire

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20 Comments

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20 Responses to 100 Greatest Women, #5: Tammy Wynette

  1. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I was never quite as big a Tammy Wynette fan as most folks of my age – yes I liked Tammy (she is my #12/10) but I was always aware of her vocal deficiencies. She never sounded as good in live performances as she did on record. I saw her at the peak of her vocal prowess when she and George had their facility (Plantation Music Park) in Lakeland, Florida.

    While she recorded more interesting songs during her later years, her best recordings are the ones produced by Billy Sherrill with his “Country Cocktail” arrangements. Often Sherrill would use a bank of strings to cover up notes Tammy couldn’t quite hit. This is most noticeable in the duets with George Jones, but also on some of her solo efforts.

    That said, Tammy Wynette made some magnificient records. She had the quientessential tear in her voice that so few of today’s female singers have. She had reliable sources of songs and she was speaking to the hearts of her listeners

    Even today female singers at Karoake bars and open mike nights continue to perform a wide array of her songs

    There is a box set TRAIL OF TEARS that serves as a good Tammy Wynette sampler – it could be better (or longer – only 67 songs on 3 CDs) but it includes some unissued cuts, album cuts, duets with George Jones, duets with the likes of Mark Gray, David Houston, Vince Gill, Randy Travis and the KLF track. My criticism of the box is that they only covered about 30 of her solo hits but the 30 they covered are great.

  2. LeeannNo Gravatar

    I was shocked when Tammy died. I guess I figured it would be George Jones first, due to his wild lifestyle.

    Paul–

    I think Tammy was aware of her vocal deficiencies. I remember hearing an interview where she said that she didn’t think she’d be able to vocally pull off “Stand By Your Man”, but she was encouraged and prodded along by her producer and was finally able to do it. I think she’s someone who used her less than perfect voice to her advantage–that whole charisma thing.

  3. CoryNo Gravatar

    Tammy never really took good care of her voice and I think that led to alot of her problems…

  4. LeeannNo Gravatar

    What do you mean that Tammy never really took good care of her voice? I’m not questioning or doubting your statement. I’m just curious to know what you mean by it, since I haven’t heard anything about it.

  5. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    Funny, but as I’ve read it, some of the biggest critics of “Stand By Your Man” were not chest-beating feminists but Tammy’s own fellow female country artists of that era, primarily because of that one line, “But if you love him, you’ll fforgive him.” I think it’s for just that one line that that particular song was and still is among the most controversial in country music history.

    And it’s amusing to point out her 1992 duet with KLF (“Justified And Ancient”) that did even better on the pop chart than “Stand By Your Man.” Amusing, because they’re all African-American, and that Tammy supported die-hard segregationist George Wallace for president in ’68.

    In spite of, or perhaps because of all this, it seems only fitting that Tammy should be in the Top Five here. She certainly helped define an important strain in the history of women in country music at a time of political and social turbulence in America.

  6. Steve

    What? Tammy behind Emmylou? Thats not right! The first lady of country music should be in top 4 no doubt.

  7. TomNo Gravatar

    How can Emmylou be above Tammy. Is there ANYONE out there who REALLY believes Emmylou is above Tammy on any level? Tammy has more hits, better sales, had more infuence on the younger singers, more popular, more longgevity, more unique, and I could keep adding from that. Actual statistics don’t lie. Tammy should really be at # 3 on this list.

  8. I’m leaving all of your other qualifications alone, since they’re subjective, but since you’re so obsessed with statistics, you’re getting a big one wrong. Emmylou Harris sold far more records than Tammy Wynette. Wynette had three gold albums and one platinum album. Emmylou had nine gold and one platinum. The list isn’t based on sales anyway, but if you’re going to tout statistics, you should make sure they’re correct.

  9. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I think the sales stats are a bit misleading – during Tammy’s peak, county music was a singles market and Tammy moved many millions of singles. Tammy was a dominant sales force in her day whereas Emmylou was just another good seller during her time.

    Another factor to consider is the shift from LP to CD. While I think analog sound is superior to digital, and well-pressed vinyl is superior to CD , the fact remains that for most people CD is the superior format as it requires much less care to keep it sounding good. Plus (and it is a huge plus), CDs could be played in car players . The shift to CD simply expanded the market greatly since it had the portability of the tape cassette while delivering nearly the sound fidelity of the LP.

    Billboard’s Joel Whitburn (Top County Songs 1944-2006) has Tammy at #28 and Emmylou at # 62. Tammy has twenty #1 singles (combined 37 weeks at the top) while Emmylou had seven #1s (combined total of 8 weeks at the top). Tammy also ranks above Emmylou in Whitburn’s list of album performers

    I too have Emmylou above Tammy on my list , but that gives credit to Emmylou for thinks outside of her recordings and performances. Remember this – Tammy Wynette was a beloved artist, Emmylou Harris is respected

  10. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar

    “Tammy Wynette was a beloved artist, Emmylou Harris is respected …”

    That sums it up for me. Now let’s move on to #3 …

    I know Dolly and Loretta are gonna be in the top 3. But I can’t come to a conclusion who else is going to be here. The only possible inclusion I can think of in such hallowed company is Mother Maybelle Carter.

    Also, I think this countdown has been really informative and entertaining at the same time. A project like this is a huge undertaking and it’s impossible to please everyone, but this is by far a better list than the Top 40 list compiled by CMT a few years back – though yours and their top 10 is very similar.

    One more things, I have agreed with nearly every choice of placement here except for Minnie Pearl. I’m not sure she ever recorded one note of music and that’s not even important to me. Who else had more visual and name recognition of the stars of her era? Not even Hank Williams, Jimmy Dean, or Johnny Cash were known in more circles and crowds. Also her influence on country music – comedy and music – is as vast, and greater in some cases, than artists with loads of platinum records and radio hits under their belts.

  11. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar

    Great effin blog tho!

  12. Paul,

    Emmylou was one of the major reasons that country started to shift from a singles-driven to an album-driven market.

  13. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    Kevin – I think it is a shift that was happening anyway, with Emmylou riding the wave. The huge LP sales of Charley Pride, Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell started the ball rolling and then Waylon and Willie really got it into high gear.

    Emmylou Harris first charted in 1975 – by then
    Charley Pride had ten gold albums on albums issued before 1973)
    Johnny Cash had five gold albums and three platinum plus before 1973)
    Glen Campbell had four gold albums and five platinum plus before 1973)

    Emmylou Harris deserves credit for a lot of things in her career – being any part of the impetus toward making country music an album-oriented genre isn’t of of those things

    Billboard started tracking County albums in 1964. When it comes to “themed” albums the real pioneer was probably Marty Robbins who issued highly successful albums revolving around western songs, Hawai’ian songs and (God help us) Rock ‘n Roll

    Message to J.R. Journey – Minnie Pearl recorded a number of songs, the biggest being “Giddy-Up Answer” – Minnie’s singing was never meant to be taken too seriously – for compelling evidence to this effect, listen to her most famous number “How To Catch A Man (with the Minnie Pearl Plan) “

  14. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar

    Thanks for the info, Paul. I should have researched that before I opened my mouth I guess. I did say I’m not sure … lol … But I’ll have to check those out.

    Also, even without ever singing a note, Minnie’s role in broadening the audiences of country music can never be understated.

  15. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar

    Johnny Cash recorded many theme albums including ‘Ride This Train’ – considered by many to be the first concept album in pop or country music history. ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’, anthems for the working man and ‘Bitter Tears’ about the American Indian.

  16. Tammy’s Anniversary: 20 Years of Hits is a great cd for people looking for an introduction to Tammy’s music. I think Tammy should be in the top 4. She has some great music.

  17. RandallNo Gravatar

    Vocal deficiencies? ya’ll are FOOLS. Tammy outsang any female out there. Tammy fans are extremely loyal so remember that when you talk about deficiencies, of which she had none. Is it a deficiency to have a raw, untamed, uncontrollably emotional voice? I think not.

  18. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    The vocal deficiencies had to do with range. Billy Sherrill did a masterful job of covering up notes Tammy couldn’t quite reach. In live performances, the lack of range was easier to notice – I was seeing her live around 1970-1972 when she was still at the peak of her powers

    Also I would never describe Tammy’s voice as raw. That description would fit Janis Joplin well, but Tammy Wynette – NEVER

  19. SkytorchNo Gravatar

    The first real shift in country music to an albums driven market occured in Oct 1967, when the first ever album in the history of the Billbaord charts went #1 country and pop. That album, Bobbie Gentry’s’ Ode to Billie Joe’ knocked the Beatles St Pepper from the #1 spot. It would sell 500,000 copies in a mere three weeks and go on to have an international sale of 1.5 million at a time when a hit country album averaged less than 100,000. The very next year, Jeanie C. Riley would also sell a million albums with her massive debut of Harper Vally P.T.A( a song inspired by O.T.B.J) and Tammy Wynette would have her biggest cross-over, ‘Stand By Your Man’ at #19 pop with a gold album to boot. The one two punch of Gentry, Riley proved once and for all that country females could sell a ton of records and have #1 pop hits.

  20. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I seriously doubt that Tom T Hall would agree with your assertion that OTBJ was an inspiration for Harper Valley PTA. Although Margie Singleton supposedly asked Tom to write a song along the lines of OTBJ, the delivered product bears no resemblance except that it was a story song, something at which Tom T Hall already was an acknowledged master.

    According to Hall, his inspiration for the song was that he liked the name of a nearby school, Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee and thought it would make a neat song title for about folks he had encountered along the way.

    The only similarities were that both were hits for hot female singers, although Riley was much the prettier and hotter of the two. OTBJ was a slow moving morose ballad, HVPTA was uptempo, upbeat and sassy

    Skytorch – I realized that you are fixated on Bobbie Gentry, but she simply wasn’t that important to country music. As I said previously, at #67 Kevin may have her over-ranked. If Bobbie Gentry had never existed (an unpleasant thought, I concede) the state of modern female country music would be exactly where it is today – mostly vapid slush

    Bobbie was a talented MOR artist – just leave it at that. Tammy pre-dated Bobbie and trying to steal Tammy’s thunder by attributing its success to a blues-folk-MOR artist marginally associated with country music is just plain obscene

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